“OUTCOME, n. A particular type of disappointment… judged by the outcome, the result. This is immortal nonsense; the wisdom of an act is to be judged by the light that the doer had when he performed it.” – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Coming up this early in this baseball autopsy series, the Padres find themselves in the midst of a number of disappointing teams in search of a direction. The Padres do have a direction, they just haven’t gone far enough along the road that they should be stopping for coffee and bathroom breaks. Of the teams that have been covered so far in this series, the Padres are the first one that I’m legitimately optimistic about when it comes to their 2020 record.
People have a tendency to not use the word “mediocre” correctly. Many use it as a synonym for awful, which it is not. Mediocre is an eternal C- student, something of continually below-average quality without being a grand failure. The post-Gwynn Padres may be the best example of a mediocre franchise.
With losing records in 11 of the past 12 seasons, the Padres never really descended into the full “farce” category, never losing 100 games or failing to make the 70-win line in consecutive seasons. The Padres as a franchise never really elicit an LOL reaction, let alone a full-bore ROFLMAO; they’re the team that you’d occasionally remember exists when your favorite team is on a road trip. Even the uniforms reflected this state of affairs. The current blue-and-white uniforms aren’t cringe material like the White Sox experiment with collars and shorts, and they aren’t obscenely odd like the Turn Ahead the Clock jerseys that assumed everyone in the future would be extremely near-sighted. They’re just bland and forgettable, like if you were using the create-a-team feature in a baseball video game and forgot to change the jersey from DefaultTeam1.
A lot of this likely has to do with the fact that the team rarely has an identity, as they’ve been wildly thrashing from one long-term strategy to another, going back to the days of Trader Jack McKeon. Sometimes they’re spenders, sometimes they act as Dickensian gruel-supplicants with their pockets hanging out like a 1930s political cartoon. Sometimes they furiously add veterans, sometimes it’s a very sudden youth movement. Just in the last decade, we had an EVERYTHING MUST GO! appliance discount sale in 2010 where they dumped everything, the quickie phase where they suddenly became win-now and pretended Matt Kemp was still good at baseball, and then that dream quickly fading, starting yet another rebuild.
Contrary to my initial concerns, this rebuild has been a highly competent affair as the Padres have slowly accumulated one of the finest groups of young talent in recent memory. Even while more fully committing to this plan for the long-term than most of their previous plans, they still haven’t been able to resist the impulse to pepper in odd moves like signing Eric Hosmer or trading for Freddy Galvis. But generally speaking, they’ve mostly resisted straying from their path.
The 2018-2019 offseason showed a lot more discipline than I have become used to for the organization. Feeling a lot like the 2013-2014 Cubs, a lot of the young talent in the minors was starting to graduate to the majors, and they smelled contention approaching. But rather than go back to the 2018 well and try to splash cash on second- and third-tier free agents, they instead went after the big game, the players who can not be developed easily. The Padres landed one of the biggest names in free agency — one who projected as even better long-term than Bryce Harper — by bringing in Manny Machado with one of the richest contracts in MLB history.
San Diego also talked with the Cleveland Indians about a Corey Kluber trade, and while nothing ever came of it (it would take more than Ryan Ludwick to fetch him this time around), it was also the right idea. Pick up the veterans and spend freely when it comes to acquiring talent that’s hard to develop on your own. Leave the run-of-the-mill for the Rockies. The Padres made a few other moves, but notably of the type that didn’t block any future talent. Ian Kinsler’s job was simply to keep a spot in the middle infield warm for when the team reached the Tatis-Urías singularity, Adam Warren was brought in to add depth to a thin bullpen, and Garrett Richards signed while injured as a down-the-road lottery ticket.
As a result of them staying the course this winter, I entered the 2019 season as optimistic about the Padres as I have ever been.
ZiPS agreed with this optimism, pegging the Padres as an 81-81 team, though one with a significant range in outcomes. A lot of the upside for the 2019 Padres was speculative, especially when it came down to the pitching. This was an especially difficult projection because as tricky as it is to figure out when prospects will break out, the Padres were also especially cagey about who would actually be on the roster at the start of the season. I maintained at the time — and still do now because I didn’t know they would, in fact, only win 70 games — that the Padres should have strongly considered being a player for Dallas Keuchel. An 81-win team, especially one with as uncertain an outlook as the Padres, is one that doesn’t have to be unbelievably fortunate to end up being an 87-win team.
Even without Keuchel, ZiPS saw the Padres with nearly a one-in-five (17.0%) shot at making the playoffs, mostly via a wild card spot. As for the offense, ZiPS projected the Padres to be at least average at every position outside of first base, enough to be a serious contender with a lot of good news out of the pitching. The projections were less excited about the starting pitching, seeing only Joey Lucchesi as a threat to hit two WAR at the projected innings (Chris Paddack was only estimated at 1.1 WAR because of being projected at 79.2 innings).
For a 70-win team, there was a great deal of good news. Paddack adjusted to the majors shockingly quick, hitting the two-win mark in 140.2 innings as the Padres resisted any temptation to overwork him. Lucchesi was as adequate as expected, and Eric Lauer joined him. Dinelson Lamet could still use a changeup in my opinion, but he made a triumphant return from Tommy John surgery, barely looking like he missed a beat. With the exception of Adrian Morejon’s shoulder and the bizarre Jacob Nix robbery-dog-door-taser incident, the pitching prospects generally stayed on their approaching paths to the majors. Fernando Tatis Jr. would have likely been the NL Rookie of the Year if not for missed time, and Manuel Margot is looking like he can at least be a league-average player in center.
There were no doubt some disappointing developments, but none that were of the type that should haunt the team long-term. Machado wasn’t actually a superstar in 2019, but he’s young enough that a bounceback ought to be expected, and there’s no fundamental problem in his game that I see that would prevent him from being better in 2020. Wil Myers and Hosmer only combined for 0.1 WAR in 2019, but then again, my expectations for the Padres’ success was despite having these players on the roster, not because of them.
Some are sad to see Franmil Reyes go, but while his power output was impressive, he was also going to be a low-OBP slugger without a lot of defensive value. Given the team’s crowded outfield, I’d rather have someone more speculative in Taylor Trammell than commit to Reyes long-term in the outfield. If the National League had already decided to start using the designated hitter — which I believe is inevitable — I’d feel differently, but that day hasn’t come yet.
What Comes Next?
The two biggest questions I have about the Padres have to do more with the organization than any specific player. First, can they continue to stick to the best version of their plan the way they did last offseason? This is a team that should be all-in on Gerrit Cole or an opted-out Stephen Strasburg and also one of the next group like Hyun-Jin Ryu or Zack Wheeler. Adding true foundational talent for years when it matters furthers the rebuild, not hinders it. What I wouldn’t want to see is the team going after players like Nicholas Castellanos or Wade Miley or Yasiel Puig, none of whom are build-arounds or particularly hard to replace in-house. Go big or go home is a rather trite cliché, but for a team like the Padres, I think it’s apt.
Possibly the harder question is whether the organization, and I’m definitely including ownership, has the strength to walk away and move past their biggest mistakes. It’s one thing to sign Hosmer to one of the most inexplicable deals in MLB history. But it’s another to, once that mistake is as apparent as the nose on your face, continue to let that mistake hurt your team year-after-year by not finding a better option at first base. The same goes for Myers. If a player isn’t good enough to justifiably be on your 25-man roster, it doesn’t matter if they’re owed $1 or $100,000,000. That money is already almost certainly gone. I’m going to cheat here and run three early ZiPS projections in this elegy to demonstrate just how important it is for the organization to answer this question well.
ZiPS projects better defense at least from Hosmer, enough to get his WAR projections briefly above replacement for a couple of years. Amusingly, I had to tell ZiPS to not apply the “lose job” algorithm, as ZiPS was convinced that a player with this projection and age wouldn’t get any MLB time after 2023.
Myers projects as generally a bit more useful. The numbers predict that he’s a slightly better hitter, and the fact remains that even if the Padres threw in the towel at giving Myers time at third base, being able to sort of fake center field is useful, and perhaps even more importantly, the Padres have seemed more inclined to use Myers as a reserve than Hosmer.
Perhaps the best news of all about the future is the change of the Padres going back to brown uniforms in 2020. I’m of the belief that brown and mustard ought to be as much a part of the organization as pinstripes are for the Yankees or Dodger Blue. If the Padres match their potential and get back into the playoffs, I’d rather see these new memories made in proper Padres attire.
The Absitively, Posilutely, Way-Too-Early ZiPS Projection – Luis Urías
Some may want to see Tatis Jr. here, but I ran him last year in this space, and given his performances in the majors, his future no longer has the level of uncertainty it did last year. Urías, on the other hand, was the subject of some rather odd usage in 2019. With Tatis making the team out of spring training, the Padres strangely decided that the future was coming too quickly, and they couldn’t completely push Kinsler out of a job. So instead of just rolling with a Urías-Tatis middle infield, they optioned Urías only to call him up two weeks later, receiving scattered playing time before again being demoted to the minors. Urías put up gaudy numbers in the comic book physics environment that was the Pacific Coast League and only started getting consistent playing time again once Tatis was injured.
Urías was better in his second call-up (.241/.341/.351), but that’s probably not enough for him to get the second-base job no-questions-asked in the spring over someone like Ty France or even some kind of free agent signing. I doubt they’ll be trumpeting it to the world if true, but I’m wondering if the Padres are thinking of Urías more as a player to trade rather than their second baseman for the next decade.
If Urías is eventually traded, I’m sincerely hopeful it’s part of a package for a real difference-maker, a Jacob deGrom or a Noah Syndergaard. If Urías fetched only, say, a year of Mike Minor, I will be sorely disappointed and extremely crabby on social media.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.